Traditional Judaism is a religion in a very different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in an orthodox (correct belief) sense of a faith commitment – not only faith in God but faith in Jesus as the messiah. There are in Christianity different streams (orthodox, catholic and protestant) and many different approaches within each stream, but what defines one as a Christian is the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah. Christianity is a community of believers – and, one who lacks the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah is not a true Christian even if born of Christian parents and even if believing in God. That is, in principle there can be no such thing as a secular Christian who does not believe in Jesus as the messiah.
By contrast, (if, for some inexplicable reason, we are insisting upon using Latin terms) traditional Judaism is a religion in the orthoprax (correct practice) sense of a culture and way of life of the Jewish people, and not in the sense of a faith commitment – not faith in God nor any other faith commitment (and not a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice) defines one as a Jew, and among the Jewish people there are those who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular. There are in Judaism different streams (orthodox, conservative, reconstructionist, reform and secular) and different approaches within each stream, but what defines one as a Jew is a legal standard of being born to a Jewish mother or having converted – and what unites Jews is not a faith commitment (and not a traditional Jewish life of law and ritual practice) but being part of a people with a shared history, language (Hebrew), homeland (Israel) and culture or heritage.
There is no term Judaism (and no labels of religious and secular) in the Hebrew Bible (as the foundation of Judaism), or in the Talmudic literature (as the foundation of the Jewish rabbinic tradition). In the Talmudic literature the term for Judaism is Torah, which is the central concept of the Jewish rabbinic tradition. The term Torah is a term that appears in the Bible, and is from a Hebrew root meaning instruction or guidance. In the rabbinic tradition, there are several different usages based upon the literal meaning. The term Torah refers in a strict sense to the 5 Books of Moses, which constitute a legal constitution of the Jewish people (even though also including much moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance). In a broader sense, the term Torah refers to Judaism – the Jewish rabbinic tradition (termed the Oral Torah in the Talmudic literature) based upon the Bible (termed the Written Torah in the Talmudic literature). In the broadest sense, the term Torah refers to wisdom. There is a Talmudic teaching (Pirkei Avot, 6, 6) in which it is written that there are 48 ways by which Torah is acquired, and most of the things listed in the teaching are things not particular to Judaism or the Jewish people, such as study, attentive listening, articulate speech and intuitive understanding – and it is clear then that the teaching is speaking about the acquiring of Torah in the sense of universal wisdom.
According to the rabbinic tradition there are two aspects to Torah that represent two kinds of guidance and instruction (Torah) – Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings). Halacha, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning to go or walk, is the external aspect of Torah – and to go or walk is an external behavior. Halacha is legal guidance of the Torah based upon the commandments (mitzvot) of the 5 Books of Moses as a legal constitution of the Jewish people, and relates to issues of permissible and forbidden. Such material establishes permissible and forbidden behavior as a matter of external authority, and demands obedience to its authority in terms of behavior. It is also the authority of rabbis as authoritative interpreters of Halacha (law) to teach and establish law.
Aggadah, which means story, is the internal aspect of Torah – and a story is a source of ideas and ideals. Aggadah is moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance of the Torah (Judaism) that relates to issues of good and bad (right and wrong), and truth and falsehood. Such material is not a matter of external authority and obedience, but is a matter of internal autonomy based upon persuasion and conviction (the mind and heart). Anyone, and not just rabbis, may teach words of moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance (Aggadah), and there is no obligation to agree or identify with such material even if taught by rabbis. In the Talmudic literature Halacha is termed “bodies of Torah”, and Aggadah then is the soul of Torah. Thus, the Christian polemic portraying Judaism as a religion of law is clearly a misconception. Law (Halacha) is only one aspect of Torah (Judaism), and an external aspect – and, the internal, spiritual aspect is Aggadah.
The question of who is a Jew has a Halachic (legal) aspect and an Aggadic (spiritual) aspect. From a Halachic (legal) point of view the answer to the question who is a Jew is a formal matter of being born of a Jewish mother or converting. From an Aggadic (spiritual) point of view the answer to the question who is a Jew is a matter of the heart and soul – and, in my view, the answer to the Aggadic question of who is a true Jew from a spiritual point of view is reflected in the two Biblical names of the Jewish people.
The main Biblical name of the Jewish people, and the name given in the Bible by God to the Jewish people, is the name Israel. The name Israel, according to the Torah, means to wrestle with God (Genesis 32, 29), and is the name given to Jacob, the patriarch (Genesis 32, 29 & 35, 10). The name Israel in Hebrew contains the terms meaning righteous and God, and therefore if divided in the middle literally means righteous of God. The name Jacob literally means to deceive, as Esau says, after Jacob takes the birthright and blessing from him: “He is rightly named Jacob for he has deceived me these two times” (Genesis 27, 36). Isaac also says to Esau that Jacob deceived him – “your brother came in deception and has taken away your blessing” (Genesis 27, 35). The story of Jacob is one of Jacob transforming himself (Genesis 32, 28-31) in wrestling with God (which I understand in a metaphoric sense that he wrestled with his own moral conscience, constituting the Divine image of the human being) – transforming himself from Jacob, one who deceives (not only his brother but his father as well), into Israel, one is who righteous before God.
The Jewish people then are the children of Israel, the children and descendants of Jacob, who are to be devoted to righteousness. Likewise regarding Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, God declares – “for I know him that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18, 19). The Jewish religion and culture is characterized above all by a preoccupation with such moral values as righteousness and justice as well as love, compassion, equality, freedom and peace, which are the ultimate values of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition – especially in distinction to the ancient, Greek culture that was characterized above all by the development of reason and intellect. The Divine image of the human being (the human being created in the image of God) in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition includes reason and intellect, but also, and even more importantly, moral conscience.
Although the Jewish people are known as the people of the Book, and although intellectual study is a central feature of a traditional, Jewish life; nevertheless, the Book (the Hebrew Bible) that is the foundation of the Jewish tradition is not a work of systematic philosophy or science celebrating the development of the human intellect but a collection of books that are devoted to moral and spiritual values, and the Jewish people are above all else to be a people devoted to righteousness, morality and right living – as implied in its name Israel (righteous of God). Righteousness rather than faith in God is the essence of religion in the Biblical conception as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) “you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” – and the word right here in the verse is actually in Hebrew the very same word righteousness that is part of the name Israel. A true Jew then as reflected in the name Israel is not just one who is born of a Jewish mother or has converted, but is a person who lives a life of righteousness and morality.
The term Jew does appear in the Bible (in distinction to the term Judaism). The term Jew, developed from the name Judah, one of the ancient tribes of Israel, and may have begun to be used following the split of the ancient Jewish kingdom of David and Solomon into a northern kingdom of Ephraim and a southern kingdom of Judah and following the destruction of the northern kingdom in the 8th century BCE, with only the kingdom of Judah then remaining. The name Judah, from which the terms Jews and Judaism are derived comes from a root meaning thankfulness. A positive and optimistic psychological attitude of appreciation and thankfulness (rather than complaint and despair) is an essential element of a religious life in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition. A true Jew then as reflected in the term Jew is not just one who is born of a Jewish mother or has converted, but is one who views life as a cup half full and is optimistic, thankful and appreciative rather than pessimistic, overly critical and complaining.